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What Canada's icy relations with China could mean for the Calgary Zoo's pandas

 Giant panda Da Mao greets crowds after the official opening of Panda Passage at the Calgary Zoo on Monday, May 7, 2018.
Giant panda Da Mao greets crowds after the official opening of Panda Passage at the Calgary Zoo on Monday, May 7, 2018. - Gavin Young
CALGARY, Alta. —

With experts saying China-Canada relations are colder than they’ve been since the two countries began a diplomatic relationship, the four giant pandas at the Calgary Zoo are a reminder of positive ties between the countries.

The zoo’s panda cubs — Jia Yueyue and Jia Panpan — will make the journey home to China in the fall as part of the partnership agreement with the Chinese government. However, Charles Labrecque, the research manager of Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, said if relations continue to deteriorate, while it’s unlikely, it isn’t unprecedented that China could threaten to demand the return all four of the black-and-white bears.

“It has happened before. China has threatened to cancel the contracts and get pandas back from the countries it has lent or rented pandas to before,” Labrecque said, adding that China threatened to take back the pandas in Austria in 2013 and delayed the delivery of pandas to Malaysia in 2014 because of political spats.

However, Labrecque suspects it’s unlikely China would threaten repatriation because the pandas are useful in improving Canadian public opinion of China. Labrecque noted surveys done by the foundation show public opinion has dropped since Huawei’s global chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou was arrested in Vancouver last December and now faces extradition to the U.S.

“That would be another step and it wouldn’t play in China’s favour because the pandas have been used in China’s diplomacy or as a tool in China’s foreign affairs to promote a kind, soft and peaceful version of the country,” Labrecque said.

China often offers pandas to other countries as a symbol of a positive or improving relationship, referred to as panda diplomacy. Earlier this month, Chinese president Xi Jinping visited Russian President Vladimir Putin to deepen their relationship. Xi brought two pandas to be donated to the Moscow Zoo as a display of good faith between the countries.

Pandas Er Shun and Da Mao arrived in Canada in March 2013 and are scheduled to stay for 10 years. During her five years at the Toronto Zoo, Er Shun gave birth to the cubs in 2015 and the four pandas were brought to the Calgary Zoo in 2018 . China owns every panda, including those born internationally.

Although Canada’s relationship with China is on the rocks, Paul Evans, a professor of Asian Affairs at the University of British Columbia, said he doesn’t foresee China threatening repatriation before the contracts are up.

“Even though it’s cold outside I think those pandas are still an expression of a positive spirit. I think that Canada and China have a much longer relationship than this current bad period,” he said.

Giant Pandas Jia Panpan and Jia Yueyue wrestle as they entertain crowds at the official opening of Panda Passage at the Calgary Zoo on Monday May 7, 2018.	 - Gavin Young/Postmedia
Giant Pandas Jia Panpan and Jia Yueyue wrestle as they entertain crowds at the official opening of Panda Passage at the Calgary Zoo on Monday May 7, 2018. - Gavin Young/Postmedia

Evans said the pandas’ visit in Canada is more about a person-to-person or cultural connection than a political one.

“Both sides, Canada and China, are trying to keep as stable a situation as possible with people-to-people relationships — whether it’s people-to-people, tourism, student flows — while if things get worse, that might be something in danger.”

The Calgary Zoo feels confident in its relationship with its counterparts in Chengdu, China. Zoo president and CEO Clement Lanthier said the friendship developed between them is based on their shared goal of conservation and science.

In April, the Chengdu panda base sent its reproductive-physiologist to assist the zoo’s team in the process of inseminating Er Shun.

“If there would have been any issue between the Calgary Zoo and the Chengdu panda base, I don’t think they would have sent their best man on their team to assist us in achieving our common goal of conservation and science,” Lanthier said.

This notion is shared by Gordon Houlden, the director of the University of Alberta’s China Institute, who said the 10-year agreement is lucrative for the panda preservation group in Chengdu.

“This isn’t something that was done overnight and I think it’s really important for both zoos,” he said.

“I consider it very unlikely that they would be withdrawn. There’s no loss, children are happy and adults are happy. It reflects well on China that they have these animals they’re prepared to share.”

sbabych@postmedia.com

Twitter: @BabychStephanie

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

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